School officials contemplated big changes last week as they discussed a possible overhaul of the Mountain View Whisman School District's policies — such as boundaries and class sizes — in order to meet the demands of rising enrollment.
The discussion put trustees in the position of trying to prioritize their educational values in the face of some big variables: rapidly rising enrollment numbers, plus a shift in the district to Basic Aid status.
Whatever changes are finally implemented could mean adjustments to school boundaries, enrollment policies, bus routes and school and class sizes.
Among the proposals presented at last week's board meeting, one proved especially controversial: new school boundaries that would mostly affect areas feeding into Castro and Monta Loma. Administrators noted that, if implemented, the change would probably not take affect until 2011-12 because of an unsafe crossing at Rengstorff and Central Expressway. Also, it would only pertain to new families in the district, and would not displace current students at those schools or their siblings.
While some trustees said it is more important for students to be able to attend their neighborhood school, others said maintaining diversity should be a priority.
"We know that low-income Hispanic and low-income African-American students often do worse in their neighborhood school than if they go to a different school," said trustee Ellen Wheeler. She pointed out that the current proposal would shift an area currently assigned to Bubb over to Castro, which serves a higher population of low-income families and scores lower on standardized tests.
"It troubles me," she told fellow board members, "and I don't have a solution for us. I don't have a formula, but it troubles me."
She called for board members and administrators to get creative while keeping in mind the needs of the Castro neighborhood students. She emphasized that she felt Castro administrators and teachers were doing their job, but that underserved students historically do better in higher-achieving schools.
"I'm uncomfortable about moving this boundary," she said. "And if we do move the boundary I'd like to see us do something to help those kids."
At an earlier session, a proposal was made to eliminate the district's $150,000 independent study program (ISP), which currently serves 50 students, only 15 of whom live within district boundaries. Craig Goldman, chief financial officer for the district, said if the cut was eventually made, there are alternatives for families that want to continue home schooling.
Judy Zellers, whose daughter tried out both middle schools before opting to do ISP, told board members that the program provides an important service for students who don't thrive in traditional public school settings.
"The ISP program could easily fill with families from the district if it were publicized within the district," she said, adding that for the past few years the program has been at full capacity just by word of mouth.
Zellers told the Voice that if the program is cut, she may try to find an alternative home school program for her daughter. But she noted that "cost is an issue" — the program provides parents with textbooks free of charge —and that she would lose out on the guidance provided by ISP resource teachers.
Bus routes, PI
Also on the agenda at Thursday's meeting was the topic of transportation. The proposed plan includes eliminating morning pick-ups at all schools except Castro. Other home-to-school stops that would be spared include Creekside Park, Space Park Way and Whisman Park.
"The idea would be ... that none of the schools other than Castro would have a pick-up," Goldman said.
He added that right now buses running from Castro to other district schools are usually very full, but buses that make morning pick-ups at most other schools are almost empty.
Goldman said the previous policy was to create a stop for any student who filled out a bus application. Currently, he told trustees, there are buses making stops for only one or two students, and that is simply not efficient.
A related consideration in making the changes is Monta Loma and Theuerkauf's Program Improvement (PI) status under the federal government's No Child Left Behind act. Because students at PI schools have the option of transferring to another school, the district is required to provide free transportation to those who request it.
It remains to be seen if any parents will elect to move their children from these schools, though one Theuerkauf parent at the meeting said he didn't believe there would be any sort of exodus due to PI status.
"In the five years I've been a parent (at Theuerkauf) I think the school has improved dramatically," he told trustees. "I don't see that any parents are upset about this or have any plans to leave the school."
In terms of class size, Goldman told trustees that the current proposal would allow up to 25 students in K-3 classes if necessary. This would give the district flexibility in utilizing its facilities while still allowing it to receive special funding from the state based on class size reduction.
Due to growing enrollment, the district wants to provide its most crowded schools — those with more than 600 students — with an additional staff member to help with administrative duties. Goldman said the person would not necessarily have to be someone credentialed in administration. The school currently closest to that mark is Bubb, with 562 students.
While policies are revised every year, the district's new Basic Aid status — where funding is based largely on property taxes regardless of the number of students — puts this year's exercise in uncharted territory. Rising enrollment numbers will mean less money per student under the Basic Aid funding model.
Trickier still, administrators say, in an unstable economic climate the district may be drifting in and out of Basic Aid and Revenue Limit status in the coming years.
Administrators will make revisions to the proposals based on Thursday's meeting and present them at the next board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 15.